MOGADISHU, May 5 – Last year, the arrival form in Somalia’s war-shattered capital demanded visitors list the calibre of guns they were carrying. Today, signs in the airport warn of the health risks of smoking.
Small changes — but Somalia, once a byword for war and anarchy, appears to be slowly turning a corner, with Islamist forces on the back foot despite launching a series of bloody guerilla attacks.
“There have been big changes, good changes,” said Abdullahi Nur, Mogadishu port manager, where container ships from India, Dubai and Turkey crowd the rehabilitated docks, offloading goods from construction materials to truck tyres and giant piles of freezers.
“Now we are even exporting camels from the port,” he added, the first time since Somalia descended into bloody civil war after the collapse of government in 1991.
In the past year, Somalia’s Al-Qaeda linked al Shabaab insurgents have been driven from a string of key towns. Soon, a new UN mission composed of security, human rights, political and financial experts will arrive in the country to further hold off Islamist militants.
“Business is growing very quickly,” said Khadar Mohamed, manager of Icon Media, a company erecting the billboard posters that now crowd the streets of this battered city — rebuilding after the Shabaab pulled out of fixed positions in August 2011.
Now adverts for banks, telephones and car companies are displayed around Mogadishu.
In the city’s economic heart, the bustling Bakara market — where a US helicopter was shot down in 1993, scenes made famous by the Hollywood film “Black Hawk Down” — the scars of frontline fighting that raged less than two years ago have faded.
But while licks of paint have in many places transformed the image of the capital, major challenges remain.
Last month, the Shabaab launched a show of force in a complex coordinated attack, killing at least 34 as suicide commandos stormed the main courthouse while a car bomb was set off elsewhere in Mogadishu.
While riven by infighting and hunted by US drones, the extremists remain a potent threat, launching car bombs and assassinations, and are still powerful in rural areas as well as reportedly infiltrating the security forces.
— London conference to boost development —
The insurgents this week released a series of photographs of masked gunmen flying black flags in front of machine guns mounted on trucks around the southern Somali port of Barawe, one of their few strongholds left.
Mahamat Saleh Annadif, African Union special representative to Somalia, speaks optimistically about the military advances made by AU troops alongside government soldiers, but warns of the shift in Shabaab tactics to “asymmetrical” or guerrilla attacks.
“They are now infiltrating major urban centres…it is a wounded animal kicking, and we are trying to adjust to the tactics of the new threat,” Annadif told AFP, speaking in his sandbagged headquarters in Mogadishu.
On Tuesday, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud will co-host alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron a conference in London on Somalia, to discuss how the international community can support its progress, with more than 50 countries and organisations due to take part.
They face a huge task.
“No one should be under any illusion: great progress has been made, but the problems Somalia is grappling with haven’t been fully solved,” said British Foreign Minister William Hague, visiting Mogadishu last month to open a makeshift fortified embassy, the first Western nation to do so for more than two decades.
The Somali president hailed the opening as a sign Somalia “is open for reconstruction and development”, although Somali journalists questioned how far an embassy located inside the heavily guarded airport zone really marked a step forward.
On the streets of Mogadishu, now often choked with traffic, AU troops still drive in armoured vehicles raised high off the ground to protect against land mine blasts, with helmeted gunners swinging mounted machine guns as they peer out of the roof.
Much of the city remains ruins of buildings, crowded with makeshift shelters of plastic draped over tree branches, home to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who fled to Mogadishu from war or the famine that devastated parts of southern Somalia in 2011.
Over a million Somalis are refugees in surrounding nations and another million are displaced inside the country, often in terrible conditions, with the UN warning of “pervasive” sexual violence. Rape by soldiers and gunmen is an “enormous problem” says NGO Human Rights Watch.
Outside the city, the weak central government has little influence, with much of the country fractured into autonomous regions, including the self-declared and fiercely independent northern Somaliland, as well as Puntland in the northeast, and the emerging ‘Jubaland’ region in the far south around the key port of Kismayo.
Several rival Somali clans eye the ‘Jubaland’ region for control, with both neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia — who both have their own troops inside Somalia — backing various factions, while the government in Mogadishu would like to see the region obey its authority.
Many of those regional authorities are not expected to take part in the London conference, a symbolic shunning of the federal government in Mogadishu, despite President Mohamud’s appeals that the meeting is “for all of Somalia and all Somalis will benefit”.
At a simple roadside stall in Mogadishu’s Tarbunka district, Saidi Mohammed sells snacks beside the shattered ruins of a concrete platform once used as a presidential stand to review military parades.
“Things are better,” Mohammed says, who lives in a simple plastic shelter nearby. “But we still need help.”